Georgetown University Georgetown University Logo Berkley Center Berkley Center Logo

Institutionalizing the Culture of Encounter in Our Global Age

By: José Casanova

August 23, 2022

Religions and Encounter as a Global Challenge

Ideally, at the individual level, we know what the culture of the encounter should entail. In every encounter with another individual, we should treat and recognize each other with the respect and dignity which every human person deserves as a child of God, created in God’s image. For as Paul wrote to the Galatians (3:28), in the eyes of God and in the eschatological Church of Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.”

Our Christian faith demands that in all our personal encounters we uphold this transcendent and abstract universalist vision of equal worth and dignity of every human being. But in the immanent City of Man, until God’s kingdom come, most if not all our individual encounters and most if not all our human social interactions have historically been and are likely to continue being determined by historically specific, often unequal and unjust, social structures that predispose and ordain our social identities, our social status, and our unequal privileges and disadvantages. A Christian slave owner may have felt obliged to treat “his” slaves charitably, but Christian charitable behavior per se did not challenge the institutional unjust and sinful structures of slavery. In the last decade, Georgetown University had to come to terms responsibly with this historical reality and atone and amend for the past sins and injustices incurred by the Maryland Jesuit community, which sold its slaves in order to finance Georgetown College. Coming to terms here meant responding appropriately to the need for “memory and justice, truth and reconciliation” by trying to institutionalize a new culture of encounter within the university community, with the descendants of the sold slaves, and within American “publics” in accordance with those needs. 

Similar analyses could be extended to any other form of collective social injustices past and present, from Western colonial oppression to systems of racial and gender discrimination, from imperial geopolitical domination to the scandals of clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Christian realism demands that in our attempts to institutionalize a new culture of encounter we come to terms with the burdens of past and present unequal social structures that may be grounded in class, race, gender, or any other form of unequal social status within all our social institutions, as well as with the burdens of past colonial and present geopolitical structures of unequal power, exchange, and domination which permeate most of the interactions within our international system of states. 

So how can one contribute to the institutionalization of the kind of culture of encounter promoted by Pope Francis, which could in turn further the kind of globalization of fraternity we need in order to more realistically address all our pressing common global challenges? First, we need to identify the prevalent structural global patterns which contribute to a globalization of indifference rather than to a globalization of fraternity. The global capitalist system is one of the dominant dynamics that contributes to the globalization of indifference. As stated by Pope Francis in stark prophetic terms, “the economy kills.” But not in the sense of the traditional Marxist critique that presupposed that capitalism was based necessarily on the unequal and universal exploitation of labor for its own self reproduction. The contemporary global capitalist economy no longer needs large sectors of the global population in the peripheries of the Global South, as well as in the internal peripheries of the developed North, as reserve labor power for its own reproduction. It can discard all these persons as non-employable unskilled labor power. In the jargon of the Davos consensus, they cannot become “stakeholders” in the capitalist economy and thus they are not needed by the system.  

Socialism and social democracy served in the past as competing alternatives to free market capitalism. Today, capitalism reigns supreme as the most efficient system to produce the kind of wealth that could, in principle, be sufficient to eliminate poverty and to provide for the basic needs of global humanity. However, the capitalist system has proven intrinsically unable to equitably redistribute the wealth it creates. Social democracy served in the past as a political system of redistribution through the mobilization of labor trade unions and social democratic parties by appealing to the democratic principles of equality and national solidarity. Today, amid ever expanding wealth and increasing inequality within and between nations, advanced democratic societies can no longer find the political consensus as to how to redistribute this wealth more equitably and how to recognize in solidarity the worth and dignity of those that feel left behind by the system. The result is a system that appears formally just but is experienced by large sectors of the population as unfair and inequitable. In turn, such an experience contributes to increasing polarization as well as mistrust in the political system, which leads to the formation of populist movements that direct their resentment against the “elites” but are unable to offer viable alternatives to the political crisis. How to find ways to institutionalize a culture of encounter in order to overcome the increasing political, ideological, and cultural polarization in our democratic systems is one of the most urgent ethical-moral tasks of our age.

If advanced democratic societies cannot find the resources to deal with their internal cleavages in a solidaristic fashion, much less can one expect that they will be able to marshal their normative principles of egalité and fraternité to realistically address the global problems jointly affecting all societies on earth: increasing global inequality and sustainable development, the ecological crisis, migration and refugees, public health, and now the war of aggression on Ukraine, which is exacerbating all global issues. Much will depend on how and when a “just peace” is negotiated and the kind of new world order that may emerge hopefully out of a negotiated settlement which sets consensually agreed rules for a new truly multipolar international order. Without it, we will enter either into a bipolar world order facing the advanced democratic “West” against “the Rest,” or a multipolar world disorder where “might makes right.”  

The war in Ukraine has made evident, in the words of Pope Francis, that “the UN has no power.” It has no power because the “superpowers”—the permanent members of the UN Security Council—have a “veto power” which places them above the rules they themselves are supposed to uphold and protect for everybody. Only radically reforming the Security Council, abolishing the veto power of the superpowers, and giving the members of the Global South a greater representation could usher us into a truly multipolar world based on consensually agreed rules that could be internationally and equally enforceable for all. Without such a reform, the international system will not be able to justly and equitably address the global challenges affecting all nations “unequally”.

As always, it is the weakest and the poorest who suffer the most and are most affected by all the contemporary global crises. That’s why “the preferential option for the poor” is not just a normative prophetic demand but is the only appropriate response from a position of Christian as well as universal humanist “realism.” Neither the global capitalist system nor the international system of states can per se be guided by such a norm. Only by mobilizing the normative resources for social justice, peace, human solidarity, and integral ecology, which already exist in the still-to-be-formed and not yet institutionalized transnational global civil society, can one hope that a new model for global integral human development may emerge. Such a model can only emerge first from the practices of transnational movements and networks before it can be institutionalized more widely.

Catholic social teaching was historically effective when it was embodied in Catholic social movements and networks of associations which were informed by such a teaching and, in turn, promoted the further development of such a teaching. Since the 1960s and particularly since the proclamation of Populorum Progressio by Paul VI in 1967, papal encyclicals have been directed not only to “the Faithful of the Whole Catholic World” but to “All Men of Good Will.” Here is where the Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda project could have its primary role in promoting the formation and institutionalization of transnational social movements and networks of associations and NGOs. This would form a link between Catholic and other religious and secular networks and institutional resources, all working together towards a new system of global governance that promotes the universal common good and integral human development at all levels: individual, local, societal, and global.